Week 17 – Charlotte Moth – 27 April-3 May – The Story of a Different Thought

2015-04-27 18.25.20When Max Ernst was six years old his beloved pink cockatoo Hornebom died on the same day that his youngest sister was born. Max Ernst believed his fascination for birds came from this early event. He described his “feeling of nothingness” and also during a bout of measles experienced hallucinations of “a menacing nightingale” that was to recur throughout his work.

159829His sculpture Habakuk, constructed from casts of awkwardly stacked flowerpots, is a bug-eyed and beaky totem pole. The sculpture has a third eye, a supposed comment on artist as visionary or prophet, which is foregrounded by its being named after Habakkuk, one of the junior prophets in the Hebrew Bible.

Habakkuk condemned the makers of idols, that is, sculptors: “What profiteth the graven image that the maker thereof hath graven it; the molten image, and a teacher of lies, that the maker of his work trusteth therein, to make dumb idols?” Thus by naming it after the prophet Habakkuk, Ernst’s sculpture ‘Habakuk’ is in a sense a response to Biblical art criticism.

Habakuk appears repeatedly in Charlotte Moth’s installation ‘The Story of a Different Thought’. She describes the body of work as existing through three mediums – film, silkscreens, sculpture. Across these there are three aesthetics – mythic, essayist, diagrammatic.


Leonardo’s Prophecy “The Shadow” is quoted as a frontispiece to the film treatment: “Many a time will one man be seen as three and all three move together, and often the most real one quits him (of our shadow cast by the sun, and our reflection in the water at one and the same time).”

Let’s take the three main elements of the show one at a time.

The film The Story of a Different Thought” uses voiceover and a mixture of visual techniques to explore three different spaces The Rathaus Marl, Twin Beaches, and Oberste Organe and how these buildings represent Flotation and Suspension.

450px-Rathaus_Marl_02The Rathaus Marl is a ‘suspended tower’ you can think of like a reinforced concrete mushroom from the top down with office floors hung doiwn from the building core. It was completed in 1964 as a new expression of identity for the town of Marl, which had grown wealthy in the 1920s for chemical engineering and coal mines, but following the war initiated a change in infrastructure, with the centralisation of the town and the creation of this new town hall, which was conceived so it could in principle serve as a building core that could be expanded on. However, the fortunes of the town deteriorated, as did the materials used to construct the building. In the 1980s the towers had to be reinforced, at great expense to a town down on its fortunes.

11169950_809023855835275_733661968465303452_nTwin Beaches is an unfinished house on Lake Manatoba, the world’s third largest glacial lake, which can fall to temperatures of minus fifty — colder than Mars. On the shoreline a small experimental architecture firm called DIN Projects has constructed a building which has floors that can rise when the water level rises. This means you could call it cybernetic, in that it responds and adjusts according to stimuli that it monitors and feeds back in. Oberste Organe is a civic building with essentially a floating roof which is also cybernetically managed by a mysterious “ring balance equation”.

22725_808356299235364_2468193614526650773_nCybernetic architecture sounds rather science fiction but it has been around for a while. Bridges are constructed with certain gaps to allow for expansion in hot/cold weather. Earthquake proof buildings flexible, they are in a sense less rigid than conventional buildings so they can shift when the earth does. The concepts of stability and flexibility are interlinked: to be strong, a building must give way. The three structures the film presents all express suspension and flotation whether in a cybernetic way as here or in a more monolithically modernist way as in the Rathaus Marl.

The film also shows us Donatello’s statue of Habakkuk, which is part of the Santa Maria Cathedral in Florence, another building which is seen as a landmark of Renaissance architecture for its “rhythmic, geometric unity” ie. balance, which is another configuration of flotation/suspension. We also also see footage from Florence of workers marbling paper, a process employing flotation and suspension.

GMA-FIAC-2014-014-800x1199The second element of the show is five large silkscreens that present different outlines and formations of the themes, beautiful Renaissance concepts and other demonstrations of ideas, physical locations, the story of Habakuk and its inspiration in Max Ernst’s life. The silkscreens chart links between the various configurations of Habakuk – Ernst’s sculpture, Donatello’s, the prophet Habakkuk, and also our third variant spelling Habbakuk, which was an ice warship from the Second World War used as an emergency landing platforms in the Atlantic. In those days sophisticated computer modelling hadn’t been invented so testing would involve going somewhere and blowing shit up, and the place where this technology was tested happened to be Lake Patricia right next to Lake Manatoba, adding another connection between Habakuk and flotation/suspension and the buildings.

10600525_810074382396889_8253089921417061757_nThe third element of the show is the sculptures. These “maquettes” are not conceived in relation to any one space, are the hardest to understand in the context of everything else. They’re these little open boxes on stilts, one with sort of disappointed candles without strings. Moth seems to intend them to be “experiential” ie. that you explore them as you do spaces in buildings. They don’t present a structured view or narrative in themselves but allow another approach to the themes. In her fig-2 interview Moth explains “Not everything can be said through a film or through a photograph or just one way of seeing.”

In considering notions of suspension and flotation we are exploring balance, and another way the show explores this is via Habakkuk and the notion of chiasmus.

18193_810065269064467_4298429106165295772_nIn rhetoric, the classic example of chiasmus is Kennedy’s “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” Chiasmus can be represented as an ‘x’ structure of four points, one for each topic, wherein the top left topic is repeated as the last, and the other two repeat to form the ‘AB-BA’ structure (country, you, you, country). This criss-cross structure existed in the ancient world but was especially appealing later to Christians, though perhaps not so much for the ‘cross’ structure (which might be me labouring it) but because of the articulation of the balance of order within the structure of text itself.

GMA-FIAC-2014-011-800x1199Rhetorical chiasmus is found extensively in Milton and (less obviously) in Shakespeare, and in the Greek and Hebrew texts of the Bible and throughout the Book of Mormon. Habakkuk’s book of prophecy is said to have a chiastic structure “in which parallelism of thought is used to bracket sections of the text.” It’s not that words and phrases repeat, but that the whole structure on a higher level of motifs, turns of phrase, or passages, employs chiasmus.

In examples like Kennedy’s statement chiasmus creates two sides of an argument or idea for a reader to consider, excluding all others and leading you to favour one. It is a fake presentation of options, narrowing an agenda and leading an opinion. This is what rhetoric does, and why rhetoric is so important to structuring and leading political discourse. Right wingers use it intuitively partly because it works but mainly because there ideas really are that simplistic. Left wingers tend to be policy wonks and get bogged down in complexity. Interesting then that in UK politics it was Prime Minister Tony Blair, or at least his Head of Communications Alastair Campbell, who didn’t invent the ‘soundbite era’ but whose rhetoric immediately came to embody it.

11182049_810065679064426_2747283788480373188_nI notice in the notes I made at the show I’ve inadvertently committed chiasmus (I think) in a note about a shot from the Twin Beaches section of the film in which,

There is snow indoors; and outside the walls are white as snow, and snow is all around, burying the house, which is already burying itself, and being buried from within.

The thought/sentence moves from the inside of the house to the outside, then to the outdoors and its irruption into the indoors; the sentence turns round on itself but while the initial image is surreal and amusing the conclusion is darker.

GMA-FIAC-2014-013-800x1199“The Story of a Different Thought” is truly impressive, making astonishing connections between disparate elements. The show works as a poetic system of interconnections from which you can take what you like. That’s what art does, how it differs from more meaning-hungry deterministic forms such as conventional essays such as the one you’ve almost finished reading, which may or may not mean nothing at all.

GMA-FIAC-2014-012-800x1199The connections are disparate but not difficult to notice and to begin to slot together in your mind. The show was obviously put together with much thought over a great deal of time. It’s not a fig-2 show as such, it’s not created in response to the overall project, it’s just staying over for a week. The connections aren’t overdetermined but are solid, aren’t as ad hoc and experimental as those in for example Week 5 (Young In Hong) or Week 11 (Beth Collar), as Francesco Dama’s review/wrap of fig-2 a quarter of the way through pointed out.

11148611_810065985731062_3031555285054830484_nMoth says “It was a very luxurious thing to able to research a project for a year, and when you have that possibility it becomes more and more layered.” This is far from the method of Fig-2’s one project a week. Then again, behind even the most hastily conceived project is a lifetime of preparation.

The show is a mapping of different ideas, but you could very well find or infer a central message or moral if you wanted to. You could get really cosmic about it and say that there is a representation of the balance of evil and good in the world, expressed through Habakkukian chiasmus, architecture as ideology and cybernetic systems.

11169959_810065055731155_5236401543579776879_nIt’s in the exploration of the ideological impetuses behind architecture that we can learn something for the future. The Rathaus Marl is an explicitly ideological construction borne out of the post-second world war structural changes in society. This contrasts with Twin Beaches, which is an experimental building more like a piece of art work that expresses a need to a need for environmental responsiveness, “an architectural solution to a specific geography of instability.” Buildings like Twin Beaches might be able to respond to the rising sea-levels of global warming, but most of our architecture will do an Atlantis. There is a war going on between different ideological positions, whether you view them as Good and Evil or not, with global warming in the middle, and the very future of humanity hanging in the balance.

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Art Fund Curator Talk #2 – “On Responsibility” (19 February 2015)

The second of this eight part seminar series with the title On Responsibility will concentrate on Roland Barthes’ seminal text entitled To the Seminar, investigating the contents and discontents of the current cultural production of art institutions and their modes of audience engagement.

Text of Barthes’ “To The Seminar”: http://www.betalocal.org/pdfs/barthes-totheseminar.pdf

I have a favourite nerdy joke in which a mathematician, upon being challenged to use the smallest possible amount of fence to enclose a herd of sheep, encloses himself in a small fence and declares “I define myself to be on the outside!”

In her second Curator Talk, “On Responsbility”, Fatoş Üstek led an attempt to apply the ideas raised in Roland Barthes’ 1974 text “To The Seminar” in a discussion of how curators approach their responsibilities to the artists they work with, the artworks themselves, and the audience that experiences these works.

This is important because the role of the curator is to mediate between the artist, the work, and the audience, while at the same time negotiating her own predilections, history, the future, and formal, financial, temporal and spatial constraints. Bad curation can result in the distortion of meaning via the imposition or implication of an order that is misleading, which has been described as being “comparable to a teacher in the classroom using outdated secondary sources for a lecture on physics.”

Barthes’ work tends to embody and perform its ideas, rather than simply framing and explaining them. This makes it, depending on your view, enigmatic and rich in possibilities for discussion, or just hard to follow. “To the seminar” opens “Is this a real site or an imaginary one? Neither. An institution is treated in the utopian mode: I outline a space and call it: seminar.” — I declare myself to be on the outside!

I’d like to ask, even if the answers are neither real nor imaginary, what we can learn from Üstek’s attempt in her seminar to apply the notions embodied by and expressed through Barthes’ text to the realm of curation, with particular regard to curatorial responsibility, and to ask: was she successful?

Seminars are necessarily small, intimate. To Barthes this safeguards the seminar’s complexity, its potentiality or capacity to generate ideas and discussion. This is a kind of Bolshevik notion that cuts against certain popularising notions that have seemingly held sway over the way that art is curated by institutions like the Tate, who lay on blockbusters of over-familiar work, ostensibly as part of their public service remit but at the cost of not bringing the unfamiliar to a popular audience. This is often seen as deeply cynical, money-grabbing, but also conversely as a demotic and democratic impulse.

In a 2001 symposium, Kathy Halbreich expressed concern that “the popular is the most significant sign of our [curatorial] success. I’m happy when our numbers are good, but I’m happier when the engagement is repeated and deep.” Critic Dave Hickey (ibid.) went on “Let’s get smaller places with better art. […] Small is always okay. In a puritan republic like this one, where there is little interest in the visible arts, it’s perfectly rational.”

This is arguably why seminars are important: as forums for discussing at a specialist level issues that can be expanded at a larger level to work toward managing the conflict between the mandarin and the demotic in art. Does this matter? Were I to be glib (and, believe me, glibness is my default mode) I could say that when an event happens, it doesn’t matter if only two people turn up as long as one of them doesn’t know what’s going on and the other one writes about it. This is one peculiar form of elitism, familiar from such formulations as are applied to the first Sex Pistols gig or the Velvet Underground, that only x people were there but they all went and formed a band. Blockbusters don’t produce anything new; it’s the niche, the cutting edge, the mandarin that generates new directions. Or is this view elitist and pretentious?

If Fatoş Üstek is right, then reading Barthes can help us formulate a response to such controversies. Let’s go into his writing a bit more. In Image, Music, Text (1968) Barthes wrote “We now know that a text is not a line of words releasing a single “theological” meaning (the “message” of an Author-God) but a multi-dimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash”. This is a formulation of Barthes’ notion of ‘the death of the author’ but let’s see what happens if we think of a literal multi-dimensional space (the seminar, the exhibition space) as a text in which a variety of ideas blend and clash. This could be useful in interpreting “To the Seminar”, and indeed it corresponds to Barthes’ third formulation of space, the three being institutional, transferential, and textual. Textual not just because it produces a text, but because “it regards its own—non-functional—practice as already constituting a text: the rarest text, one which does not appear in writing.”

What is this nonsense, a text that is not written? A text that is textual by virtue of just being, or being performed, even if it finds no final form? We can look to oral poetry for confirmation that such texts can indeed exist, though they differ from the modern trope of the text in their lack of final form. This is a fruitful comparison for the seminar or curated space where the conversation (to which Barthes devotes a passage), the discussion, rarely produces a final ‘text’ but embodies textuality by virtue of its discursiveness.

The curatorial conversation results in an exhibition, a show, which is essentially the text that is produced. But it is ephemeral; its documentation is another text discrete from the text itself, which is the show, which must end (even the achingly long blockbuster shows at the Tate eventually end, even if they seem to go on forever). Barthes talks about the production of knowledge from the seminar, but, similarly, notes that “Knowledge, like delight, dies with each body.”

Barthes’ essay then moves from discussion of knowledge and on to teaching it, the transmission of knowledge. But how can that happen if knowledge dies with the body? Clearly some knowledge is transmitted, even if it is a facsimile like the documentation of an exhibition. Barthes revels in the paradox: “To teach what occurs only once—what a contradiction in terms!”

Üstek concluded with a quotation of Barthes’ quotation from Michelet, “I have always been careful to teach only what I did not know,” and in a sense she was right, not in terms of her understanding of the Barthes text or the discipline of curacy, but in her quite brave decision to apply the one to the other. In a Barthean act of incompletion, foregrounding meaning-making as a process rather than an end, she installed in this seminar a conversation as a space for discussion, without resolving it into a final meaning, a final decision or ultimate morality of curation.

It is a fruitful analogy: curating as seminar, as a space for discussion involving multiple competing perspectives and decisions, given that, as I said above, the role of the curator is to mediate between the artist, the work, and the audience, while at the same time negotiating her own predilections, history, the future, and formal, financial, temporal and spatial constraints. While the show must end, and the seminar must end, the questions raised in the specific context of a show will continue through all other subsequent shows.

This is why the curator is like Barthes’ first educational roleplayer, the teacher, with the teacher’s responsibilities to making meaning accessible, even if it is not final. Üstek shares Barthes’ implied view that the master-apprenticeship relationship attempts to transmit such finalised meanings, which is impossible, and finds in Barthes’ third educational practice, mothering, a more valuable way of thinking about the curator’s role: to support rather than transmit individual meaning-making. The Tate tells us what is canonical in art historical terms: to say ‘this is what art is’. Art dealers tell us what is canonical in financial terms: to say ‘this is what is valuable’. The curator is not like an art dealer, but more like a carer, whose responsibility ultimately lies in making a space available in which we as an audience can experience Barthes’ notion of jouissance, where we can find gratification but also experience the danger of disappointment, allowing us to find our own meaningfulness and turn against “an aggressive destiny.”

Further reading

On Barthes: http://jsheelmusiced.pressible.org/jsheel/roland-barthes-%E2%80%9Cto-the-seminar%E2%80%9Dhttp://sweb.uky.edu/~jri236/pleasure/syllabus/https://www.academia.edu/224463/_The_Paideia_of_the_Greeks_On_the_Methodology_of_Roland_Barthess_Comment_Vivre_Ensemblehttp://www.frieze.com/issue/article/barthes-after-barthes/

On curation: http://www2.tate.org.uk/nauman/themes_4.htm http://www.giarts.org/article/curating-now-imaginative-practicepublic-responsibility

What is fig-2?

In 2000, curator Mark Francis created fig-1. The idea was to present “a series of exhibitions and events in a small space in the centre of the city, each lasting a week. Not accountable to any institution or to commercial pressures. Free of sales, storage, shipping, dinners, mailings, not for profit, no bureaucracy or infrastructure. Experimental, energetic, epic.”

The participants included many familiar names – Richard Hamilton, Howard Hodgkin, Bridget Riley, Jeremy Deller, Grayson Perry, Wolfgang Tillmans – as well as people active in disciplines beyond ‘fine art’. Will Self wrote a set of stories, live on a big screen, about the people who came in to watch him write a live set of stories. I remember hearing about this at the time and thinking it was pretty cool, especially since it exasperated my friends.

In 2015, London-based Turkish independent curator Fatoş Üstek is curating fig-2 at the ICA. “I have a trans-disciplinary approach to art – I’m from a science background myself – and I’m interested in all aspects of knowledge production. Every project will be very different, and there will be dancers, designers, singers, poets and writers as well as artists. I hope that if you experience just one of the 50, or all of the 50, or part of the 50, you will have some experience of the whole, in that the year will be a massive exploration of the critical and aesthetic currency of our time.”

I’m going to try to visit all 50 weeks, and write a bit about each. Just because.

For a full outline of the fig-1 and fig-2 projects: http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2014/dec/26/fig2-ica-mark-francis-fatos-ustek

The official fig-2 website is here: http://www.fig2.co.uk

The ICA fig-2 page is here: https://www.ica.org.uk/whats-on/seasons/fig-2

You can sign up to the weekly fig-2 newsletter here: http://www.fig2.co.uk/#/subscribe